A Medford teachers strike seemed imminent late Wednesday as school district and union officials remained huddled in state-mediated negotiations and a union official held a press conference to announce her "utter disappointment" with the way things were going.
Medford Education Association President Cheryl Lashley said during a brief press conference shortly after 8:30 p.m. that bargaining teams would continue until 5:59 a.m., one minute before teachers planned their walkout if a settlement wasn't reached.
The 11th-hour negotiations began at 9 a.m. Wednesday in different rooms at the district offices, and two state mediators relayed information from one group to the next throughout the day and into the night.
Superintendent Phil Long said Wednesday afternoon that both sides had made concessions but remained more than $12 million apart in early retirement benefits alone, a figure Lashley later disputed but would not offer a new figure.
"At this point the key sticking points for the (union) are compensation, insurance and retirement benefits, not the PERS (Public Employees Retirement System) piece, but the early retirement incentive," Long said.
As the district and union wrangled, children and their parents said tearful goodbyes to their teachers Wednesday afternoon, not knowing when they'd see them again if a strike ensued.
The district canceled classes today regardless of whether a settlement was reached, and if a strike does occur, classes won't resume until Tuesday. School days would be shortened to four hours, substitute teachers would take the place of striking teachers, and schools such as Roosevelt would be combined with larger schools.
"At the end of the day, most of the girls in my class started crying, and the teacher was crying," said Roosevelt Elementary School fourth-grader Ruby Jacobsen through tears of her own.
As Ruby's tears began to flow, her aunt watching nearby started to cry, too.
"We are hoping all this gets figured out and figured out soon," said Crystal Ellis, who is legal guardian to Ruby and her younger sister, Katie Jacobsen.
Ellis said Katie, a third-grade student at Roosevelt, has some special needs, making any change "really stressful."
Students can expect to see many familiar faces, including their school principals, secretaries, campus monitors and other support staff, said Julie Evans, director of elementary education.
"I'm anticipating we will have a good, healthy adult-to-student ratio," she said. "And we'll make sure it's safe."
Long said Tuesday the district had enough substitutes in place to fill in for teachers during the strike.
All teachers were required to check out of their classrooms Wednesday afternoon. Principals met with each teacher individually to discuss lesson plans and locate teachers' editions, answer keys and other materials needed for instruction. Administrators also collected the teachers' keys and identification badges.
"They also (were) given their check of what's owed them," Evans said, describing these interactions as "professional but emotional."
"The union members have a right to strike, but the district has an obligation to continue instruction and inventory the district assets."
All teachers had to follow the same checkout procedure.
"We want it to be a confidential decision of teacher choice, and there are procedures in place for teachers that would like to return to work," Evans said. "That procedure has been shared with all teachers."
Picketing would take place in public areas, not on school property, and teachers would abide by city ordinances, assured Rebecca Konefal, an Oregon Education Association representative.
"The entire point of this labor action is to encourage the district to keep progressing at the bargaining table," she said.
Many of the parents and guardians picking up their kids after school Wednesday had not decided whether they would send them to classes during a strike.
Genevieve Shultz, Ella's mom, said she planned to let her daughter go the first day to see how she adapted. If the substitutes turned out to be "glorified baby sitters," she said she would keep Ella home and "keep her busy with reading and math."
According to state law, students can't miss more than 10 consecutive days of school or their enrollment will be withdrawn.
However, a student can miss nine consecutive days, attend school for a half day, and the 10-day count restarts.
"A lot is in the air, and we're just planning it as we go," Ellis said.
If parents have questions about their students' schedule, they may call one of the district's three hotlines: 541-842-1084, 541-842-1086 or 541-842-1085.